Catching Teachable Moments

This week we have covered over a 1000km in just four days, travelling from Porto in Portugal, across Northern Spain and back into France.  We have absorbed the delights of the old historical city of Porto, walked through a fabulous Victorian park in Lugo, watched elephants graze in Santander and climbed 10,000 steps to the top of San Sabastian.  We have also been asked on three separate occasions why our children (aged 8 and 13) are not in school.

Since our trip began back in September 2015, hundreds of people have stopped and asked us about our children’s education.  So much so, I even dedicated a blog to it some time ago (So, what about their education?).

It’s a funny little anomaly really.  The people who ask are mostly fellow travellers, so they know and promote the extensive learning benefits of travelling – but they still can’t quite get their head around our children not being in school – because that’s just the way things are done.

Well, one of my favourite quotes is ‘Just because that’s the way things are done, doesn’t mean it is the right way or the only way’.

Our answer is always polite and simple:

‘The world is our classroom.’

Of course, they nod enthusiastically, but this answer is never enough to satisfy the curious traveller.  Cue the bombardment of questions!

“Do you home-school them then?”

“Do you have a set timetable or schedule for education?”

“Do they have any school work to complete?”

“Was it difficult to remove them from school?”

“Are you worried they will fall behind?”

These questions often make us feel defensive because the transient traveller only has time for a brief answer – No.  But it’s not as simple as a ‘No’.

We are actively and consciously educating our children.  Just not in the traditional sense that society now considers to be the only way.

So even though the moment has passed, I want to take this opportunity to talk about our children’s education, as honestly and frankly as only I know how.  Maybe one day, someone will stop long enough to listen, but until then, here are the answers, you never stopped to hear;

Do you home-school them then?

No, not in the traditional sense.  But we did try to register for home-schooling before we left the UK.  Our Education Welfare Officer asked us why we would bother when we would not be ‘at home’.

We enquired about ‘road schooling’.  The answer was ‘look, as soon as you leave the country, we don’t care’.  Well, that was that.  We did not pack a bunch of textbooks.

Do you have a set timetable or schedule for education?

No, why would we coop our children up in the motorhome, make them sit at a table and force them to learn through textbooks when the world beckons outside?   This great expanse of land is our classroom!

Our children learn by seeing, listening, touching, smelling and tasting the world around them.  They learn by doing, rather than imagining.  They learn by being interactive with their surroundings.  We teach them by being responsive to their natural curiosity.


Our children learn by seeing, listening, touching, smelling and tasting the world around them

Until recently we never had a word to describe our preferred style of ‘teaching’.  We did it naturally; consciously and subconsciously.

But thanks to a dear friend, we were surprised to learn that our method of teaching is a recognised and much-aspired model of learning.  We educate our children by seizing ‘teachable moments’.

A ‘teachable moment’ is that instant when a child’s curiosity is spiked. When they are interested, engaged, ready-to-learn.  It can happen anywhere, at any given time.  It is a real, immediate and spontaneous opportunity, in the midst of casual life, when a child is interacting with us in a way that cannot be planned in advance. It is a fleeting moment that must be sensed and seized upon. You must be ready, present and observant, physically and mentally, because if you miss the cues of an inquisitive mind, the teachable moment is lost.

Our intention is to catch these teachable moments and use them to make every learning moment count.  Intentional teaching like this moves beyond the textbook and capitalises on when a child learns best – when the teachable moment relates to a real life experience – when they have the opportunity to ask questions and make sense of the world around them.

Education is easy if the mind is naturally inquisitive

On average, our children each ask approximately 30-40 questions per day – which translates to 30-40 teachable moments. They usually pertain to where we are going or what we can see. Other times they can be fairly random.

Today, we have already been asked ‘What is the difference between a suspension bridge and a viaduct?’ Who makes the McLaren? ‘Why is San Sabastian also called Donostia?’ and ‘Why do we all speak different languages?’.

Our motto is ‘there is no such thing as a silly question – just ask’.  Our role as parents is to be present and in-the-moment when those questions arise.

Without blowing our own trumpet, I would say that we seize 95% of all questions.  But that is not surprising given that we are present in our children’s life 95% of the time.  We have no other distractions.  We are travelling together as a family unit, in a confined space, exploring our surroundings together at the same time. We have time to hone our skill – to become experts at sensing and seizing teachable moments.  It has become an immensely enjoyable pastime, for everyone.

We have also become slightly more relaxed and liberal as parents.  Of course, we have limits, but we realised that by protecting them from certain things, we were limiting potentially brilliant teachable moments.  Take films for example.  Before leaving the UK, we would adhere to the age guidelines, restricting our children from watching anything other than a ‘PG’ unsupervised, and perhaps a ‘12’ supervised.

But when all you have is several hundred DVD’s stored in plastic sleeves, no TV and a week of awful weather, you question whether you can survive the same Disney film for the 50th time.  We made an executive decision to allow our children to watch films that contained more mature themes in return for potential learning outcomes.

We were aware that the films contained unsavoury language, so we talked to our children about it first.  We discussed how Hollywood uses bad language for effect.  That swearing and cursing are part of life…some people swear more than others…sometimes it is more appropriate than other times, etc.

Oddly, this conversation also triggered a teachable moment – our kids were engaged, ready to share stories. Our daughter asked whether swearing ‘every other word’ was a sign of a lack of intelligence.  Good question.  We ended up spending the evening researching alternative ways to curse or offend someone without swearing. We had fun with Shakespeare’s insult kit and named Sir Winston Churchill as the winner of the most ingenious non-cussing insults.

So, back to the films – after some strict ground rules (never EVER repeat a swear word and close your eyes whenever we shout ‘snogging scene!’) we sat together, as we do every evening, snuggled together under a blanket with a large bar of chocolate, and watched the following movies, which lead to the following teachable moments;

  • Forest Gump – resulted in an animated discussion about the Vietnam war and the anti-war protesters, the treatment of people with differences and how some people on the autism spectrum can take things very literally, therefore, language and communication are very important.
  • Legends of the Fall – After a good cry, we spent the whole evening talking about the impact of World War 1, what life would have been like in the trenches, the effects of shell-shock and PTSD, the impact of war on future generations and the start of the collapse of the ruling class.
  • Men of Honour – Wow! After this film, our kids were up in arms about the treatment of black people in the armed services. We discussed the introduction of the equality act and how it is no longer acceptable to discriminate on the grounds of race, religion, gender or sexuality.
  • Hotel Rwanda – Again, this raised many questions about the treatment of black people. Our daughter asked how the United Nations and the British and US Government could sleep at night knowing that they only saved the white people – sparking a huge ethical debate which lasted hours!
  • Brave Heart – This film really triggered some great questions and a long and enthusiastic conversation about the history of Scotland and the gruesome reality of being ‘Hung, Drawn and Quartered’.
  • The Colour Purple – Another film that led to a very emotive debate about the ethics of slavery and the welcome introduction of the prohibition of slavery in America in the 1960’s. We also discussed the suppression of women over the course of history and how the suffragette movement started a chain of events that led to women being treated as equals (in most countries anyway).
  • Pearl Harbour – This film provided the perfect teachable moment to discuss the role (and late arrival) of America in World War 2, the actions of Japan and the devastating consequences that happened as a result of their surprise attack on Pearl Harbour on the 7th December 1941.

These are just a few examples of how our casual moments inspired our children’s desire to learn.  As parents, we simply honed into their natural curiosity and child-like wonder.  Nothing was, or is, ever forced.  We simply answer their questions to the very best of our ability and knowledge.  If we don’t know – we find out.

Forest Gump was a great way to explore the Vietnam War

How does our method compare to state education?

Well, a classroom has upwards of 30 inquisitive children in the UK.  It would be impossible for a teacher to sense and seize every opportunity for every child.  The curriculum dictates what, when and sometimes how subjects are taught.  Learning is led by the government, not by the child.  There is no accounting for whether the child is open to learning about that subject at that precise time – they may be distracted by other life events – it may just be the wrong time.

The strain on teachers has been well documented recently (cited as the 2nd most stressful profession according to research undertaken by the University of Manchester in the UK).  Testing and pigeon-holing children has taken away the joy and wonder of learning for many.  Lesson plans and administration has become so overbearing that teachers are sacrificing their own family time.

It seems, in an environment where spontaneity and intentional teaching is diminishing, the opportunity to sense and seize teachable moments is being lost. And that’s a crying shame.  The chips are stacked against schools and teachers.  It’s not their fault – but we believe in the current climate, we are better placed as parents to educate our children using this recognised model and method.

In short, we don’t believe learning can be, nor should be time-tabled.  That is our choice.

Do they have any school work to complete?

No, as aforementioned, there was no discussion, nor a requirement to undertake any school work.  We do however try to keep up with reading, writing and arithmetic.  They both read for enjoyment. They write short stories for fun.  They write the odd postcard when forced. Basic mathematics is encouraged through challenges relating to currency, time and kilometres.  We do not own a textbook, nor have any idea of the current curriculum.

We learn about history by visiting and researching historical sites.  We learn languages by attempting the language of the country we temporarily call home.  We learn about geography through travel – tracking and planning our routes, visiting capital cities and learning about the landscapes of each country through walking, cycling or swimming. We learn about science by observing our surroundings, interacting with nature, exploring the curious and respecting the brilliance of our planet.  We engage in physical activity every day, monitoring our steps and challenging ourselves to accomplish new physical achievements.  We climb peaks, explore caves and swim in lakes, rivers and oceans.  We travel by train, bus, metro, cable car, tuc-tuc, boat, bike, tram, horse-drawn carriage, donkey and sore, blister-ridden feet – we embrace local cultures and taste local cuisine.

We may not have any written record of our life’s lessons, but we have memories that will stay with us forever.

We learnt about the Battle of the Somme by visiting the Somme – it was a profound visit that will stay in our memories forever

Was it difficult to remove them from school?

This was probably the easiest task to complete before leaving the UK.  Our schools simply said ‘have fun!’.  We arranged a meeting with our daughter’s Principle because we could not believe it could be that easy.  Surely with parents receiving fines for taking their children out of school during term time, we would be penalised heavily for removing them for 12 months? Apparently not!

Interestingly he said that his school ‘could not compete’ with the education travelling would gift our daughter.   We have since met five retired teachers and two headteachers on the road who completely agree with him.

It is surprising that those most supportive of our travels have either worked or still work in the teaching profession. There’s a message right there!

Are you worried they will fall behind?

No. We believe this has been the best experience of their lives.  Will they miss anything?  We don’t think so.  Not anything that they couldn’t pick up or catch up on if, and when, we return.  The greater question is ‘do we want them to return to a state education?’.  We’re not sure.

We value the basic principles of school-based learning, especially in respect to reading, writing and arithmetic.  We also value the social skills developed by friendships and relationships.  But we do not miss the constant ‘testing’ of our children (that in no way can assess their intellect or talent), the playground cruelty, the homework, the pettiness of rules or the rigidity of learning – even to the detriment of a child’s mental health and wellbeing.

We have made no bones about the troubles we have encountered with education in the past.  It took seven and a half years for our daughter to be finally assessed as having severe dyscalculia (the equivalent of dyslexia but with numbers).  The final report from an expert specialising in dyscalculia arrived just two weeks before we left the UK.  It said that our daughter displayed all of the classic signs of a child battling with dyscalculia.

She was in the top sets for all other subjects, excelling particularly in literacy and art.  Yet her brain had an abnormality that could not interpret, nor see the pattern of numbers – no matter how hard she tried or how much the teachers tried.  His opinion was that this would not improve – like a person who is colour blind will never see colour – our daughter will never understand numbers.  Instead, he suggested, she should be taught how to be resourceful.

‘Stop doing what you are doing and teach her how to use a calculator’, he advised.

We were angry for all the years our daughter cried during maths lessons, heartbroken that she couldn’t understand it, terrified of getting it wrong.

We were sorry for all the times she was pulled out of lessons she loved to receive extra help in a subject that made her feel dreadful.

We were desperately shameful of the fact we stood by as parents and watched her confidence wane.

Her shy, introvert nature was taken to a worrying, isolated place where she felt misunderstood and stupid (that’s how she explained it).  Every parent’s evening, her teachers would talk about our daughter as a delightful, creative girl, with a warm and gentle heart.  Yet we always anticipated the ‘BUT’.  And it always came.

It didn’t matter how great she was at everything else.  Because she couldn’t add up, she was not succeeding in school.

Lola’s creativity was overlooked because she couldn’t add up

Einstein was right when he said ‘If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will always grow up to think it’s stupid’.

Our daughter fell victim to an education system that stopped believing in individual realisation and focused on standardisation.  It fixated negatively on vulnerabilities rather than positively on strengths.  It attempted to bring every child to the same level regardless of whether it crushed their spirits, confidence, creativity and love of learning.

So, do we want our daughter to return to an institution that makes her feel stupid? No.

We have watched her blossom this past seven months.  Her fear of asking questions has diminished.  She smiles and laughs more than she ever did before.  She draws – every day.  Her two passions of animals and drawing are combined to create masterpieces that leave us in awe.

With the time to focus on the subjects she loves, her confidence has improved.  She feels good about herself.  She believes in her ability and is no longer afraid to dream of a promising career.  Put simply, our daughter is thriving.  She is bright and clever, but most of all, she is really happy.

Our daughter’s confidence has recovered.  She is relaxed and happy now

As for our son; we call him ‘The Sponge’.  He has a thirst for knowledge. Like his father, he has a huge capacity to store information.  Like a walking-talking encyclopaedia of facts, he absorbs information and retrieves it when he needs it.  Thankfully, he was also born with a sense of purpose.  He believes he was always meant to be here, destined for something great.  He lacks no doubt in the confidence department.  He has total, unwavering belief in himself.  And we harness it.

We are so very proud of him.  He is embracing this experience.  They both are.  They talk of adventures they will have when they travel with their own families.  They are considering futures in different countries.  Their horizons have been broadened.  Anything is now possible.

Would they feel the same if they were in school?  We doubt it.  Travelling has been an education in itself.  It is an experience that cannot be rivalled by any school, college or university.  Travelling is a gift that keeps on giving.  In just seven months, we know this experience has changed the course of all of our lives, forever.

Travelling is an education in itself

Not every child will have this unique opportunity.  If we had a magic wand we would certainly bless every child with the gift of travel, but in the absence of a wand, we can only hope that our government starts to recognise the value of teachable moments.

That they revisit the definition of education.  That they realise that ‘enlightening experiences’ are also educational.  That children benefit from undistracted time with their caregivers.  That holidays are amazing opportunities to harness the inquisitive mind of a child.  That travelling, for however short a time, is a fabulous opportunity to learn and make sense of the world in which we live.  That fines for taking children out of school for a holiday is short-sighted and counterproductive.

We would challenge them to consider how many school lessons they remember versus how many enlightening experiences they remember.  And we would suggest that there is more than one way to skin a cat and more than one way to educate a child.

Our children do not attend school.  Will that disadvantage them?  We doubt it.  IF we were the type of people who wished to ‘test’ our children, we would bet our sunhats that they would score an A* for life skills – The single greatest attribute we all need to make sense of this crazy, beautiful world!

Remember, children should be taught how to think, not what to think.

There’s a significant difference.

Our Son ‘The Sponge’ is embracing this experience





8 thoughts on “Catching Teachable Moments

  1. I entirely agree with you. As a family we harness these teachable moments, and although not the same as your travels, we traveled around South America with our kids for two months when they were almost 7 and almost 5 (and we blogged it latinamericawithkids). That meant taking our daughter out of school for two weeks, but she learnt more in those two weeks than she did in a year of school. Three years later they both still talk about the experiences they had in South America, and since on our travels around the UK, in India and elsewhere. Unfortunately we aren’t able to travel full-time, much as we would like to, but try and take the moments we do have and make them as memorable as we can. I’m loving your blog, and am inspired for our next big adventure, in the motorhome we have just bought – 6 weeks in Europe next summer. Thank you for sharing your experiences, and for your wonderful writing style!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow! Sounds like you have an exciting adventure ahead! I always say, as a parent, we are responsible for forming our children’s memories for the future – it’s a big responsibility. From what you say, you’re doing a grand job! Well done and thank you for taking the time to write! Enjoy the new motorhome xxx


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